Canada has learned its potential road to the 2018 FIFA World Cup – and it doesn't look easy.
The Canadians started their qualification campaign in June with a 6-0 aggregate win over Caribbean minnows Dominica Dominica. And Saturday’s World Cup qualifying preliminary draw revealed that up next will be a home-and-home against Belize, currently ranked No. 118 in the world.
But head coach Benito Floro, whose side is ranked No. 103 in the world and is coming off a goalless performance at the CONCACAF Gold Cup, knows that the Central Americans can’t be taken lightly.
“We can say Belize is a team that has made positive and continuous progress,” Floro said in a release. “That’s good for us because it won’t be easy to pass this eliminatory round. We need to focus on these first two games with a lot of intensity.”
Those matches will take place on Sept. 4 and 8, with Canada hosting the first leg at BMO Field in Toronto. Many Canadian fans, however, are already looking ahead to the daunting semifinal round, in which Canada would face Mexico, Honduras and the winner of the El Salvador vs. Curacao third-round series.
That would mean a return to San Pedro Sula, the place where Canada was officially knocked out of contention for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. In the latter case, it was with an infamous 8-1 scoreline that still haunts the program.
Floro, however, is taking things one step at a time.
“We’re only going to focus on Belize right now because if we don’t win that, it doesn’t matter to think about the groups.”
The last time Canada played Belize was in a pair of World Cup qualifiers in 2004. Canada won both games, 4-0. And while a similar result is hardly guaranteed this time around, the veteran Spaniard is allowing himself to think ahead to that potential semifinal group, just a little bit.
“I think that all the teams have a similar level,” said Floro. “It’s true that Mexico is one step over the rest. But we need to trust in our players because history has demonstrated that it’s possible to qualify for the Hexagonal.”
Possible though it may be, Canada hasn’t played in “the Hex” since 1997. But there are potential causes for hope, despite the Canadians’ goalscoring woes at the Gold Cup.
In November, Canada grabbed its first result in Central America in a decade, a 0-0 draw in Panama City. Honduras, despite the historical success against Canada, has won just two of its last 15 games, and actually had an even worse Gold Cup than Canada.
Mexico, despite qualifying for the final, has hardly been at peak form during the Gold Cup. And the last time Les Rouges faced El Tri in World Cup qualifying, back in October 2008, the host side did manage a 2-2 draw at a chilly Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
Floro has said that BMO Field, which has hosted Canada’s World Cup qualifiers in recent years, will be unavailable beyond the September game, presumably due to ongoing construction. The manager has said his preference is always to play qualifiers on natural grass, which would make Montreal’s Stade Saputo a likely alternative.
But with games in the semifinal round set for FIFA windows in November and March, the question becomes, could we see Canada do what every other CONCACAF nation does—maximize its home-field advantage however possible – by playing in a wintery, inhospitable location such as Edmonton or Winnipeg?
Of course, there’s no point attempting to answer that question unless Canada first gets the job done against Belize in September.